Sports Nut

America’s First Sports Superstar

How the bare-knuckle fighter John C. Heenan united the country before the Civil War.

Click here to view a slide show about John C. Heenan.

Stephen went down Bedford row, the handle of the ash clacking against his shoulderblade. In Clohissey’s window a faded 1860 print of Heenan boxing Sayers held his eye. Staring backers with square hats stood round the roped prizering. The heavyweights in light loincloths proposed gently each to other his bulbous fists. And they are throbbing: heroes’ hearts.

—James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

At just before 7:30 a.m. on April 17, 1860, American boxer John C. Heenan stepped into a makeshift ring to fight for the world championship. Heenan’s opponent was the mythic British champion Tom Sayers, and the setting was a field outside of London that the fight’s promoters hoped was isolated enough to prevent police disruption, what with boxing being illegal at the time. This would be the greatest sporting event of the 19th century, a spectacle that featured in the writings of Thackeray (who attended), Dickens (who at the last minute gave his ticket away), Hawthorne (“You cannot imagine the interest that is felt in the battle,” he wrote to his son), Browning (Robert and Elizabeth Barrett), and Twain (who speaks of both men in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court). America was so obsessed that one of Abraham Lincoln’s aides informed him that talk of the fight “eclipsed” the Democratic National Convention in Charleston, S.C., an event that would pave the way for the Great Emancipator’s election and help spark the Civil War.

In 1860, America was careening toward armed conflict. Yet in the year and a half that preceded Fort Sumter, both North and South (and West) were united behind the country’s first sports superstar. Though perhaps not as broadly popular as harness racing, boxing had gained renown by the mid-19th century, its popularity spurred by the legions of new immigrants streaming into the ports. Before Heenan, all of the previous American titleholders were less national champs than representatives of constituencies. Consider the American championship fight in 1849, which was contested by Tom Hyer (who fought under the red, white, and blue for the “native boys”) and James Ambrose (who, though he used the ring name Yankee Sullivan, was truly representative of Irish-born immigrants).

Heenan’s national appeal came largely because his rise coincided with that of the newspaper industry. The explosion of a sensationalistic “penny press” goosed Heenan’s popularity in all sections of society, not just in the urban areas that had previously made up prizefighting’s core constituency. The mustachioed king of bare-knuckle prizefighting would be celebrated in poems and ballads, drawn by Currier & Ives and Thomas Nast, and portrayed on Broadway by the country’s most beloved comic actor, Joseph Jefferson. His name was used to sell butter—”Of course, it is very strong,” the New York Illustrated News reported—chewing tobacco, and Kellogg’s “best mill brand flour,” the antebellum version of appearing on the cover of a Wheaties box. Barbers re-created his hairstyle, and newborn boys were given his name. His relationship with the nation’s most notorious actress was the source of a lurid sex scandal.

Then a mammoth figure on the national stage, a symbol of American unity that was fast disappearing, John C. Heenan is now utterly forgotten. In retrospect, he seems like a caricature of a 19th-century American. Born to Irish immigrants in Troy, N.Y., in 1835, Heenan left home as a teenager to follow the Gold Rush to California. Out West, he fought local toughs under strict rules: no head-butting, no biting, no striking below the belt. A round ended only when one of the fighters was knocked or thrown to the ground.

Heenan’s story is bound up in the sharp-elbowed ascendancy of American democracy, a sport the boxer ably participated in. “The Benicia Boy”—named after the frontier town where he swung a blacksmith’s hammer for a time—was a muscleman for the foreign-born politicians who imported Tammany Hall’s ballot-stuffing techniques to San Francisco in the mid-1850s. Heenan and his fight manager fled back East when nativist vigilantes threatened to hang them both.

They arrived in Gangs of New York-era New York City in 1857, and Heenan was touted in the sporting press as the “California champion.” (It’s not certain when and where he received the title.) One year later, Heenan fought the reigning American champion, John Morrissey. Due to the rise of the telegraph, the Heenan-Morrissey fight was a huge event, with newspapers across the East Coast promptly reprinting articles from the New York press. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Heenan, regarded then as a giant, was Morrissey’s equal, save for his poor conditioning. While Heenan drew first blood and scored the first knockdown, Morrissey knocked out the depleted challenger in the 11th round. The fight was particularly brutal. In commenting on the Lincoln-Douglas debates that had concluded two weeks earlier, the New York Evening Post would write, “Let [the politicians] be drawn off before they try the logic of Morrissey and the Benicia Boy, or who shall answer for the nose of ‘Old Abe,’ or the ‘knob’ of the ‘Little Giant’?”

Morrissey retired after his title defense, and Heenan was acclaimed the American champion by default. He made the most of it, embarking on a lucrative, months-long exhibition tour—he sometimes allowed the town’s toughest farmhand to step into the ring with him—that went as far north as Montreal and south as Mobile, Ala. Every newspaper along the way printed lengthy descriptions of the proceedings.

With Heenan’s popularity cresting, a championship fight was set between America’s best and the British champ. Tom Sayers, an illiterate bricklayer who had fought 12 official prizefights and lost only once, was seen by his countrymen as the greatest British fighter of all time, with Thackeray calling him a “god-like Trojan.” Even though he was taller, heavier (by 46 pounds), and younger than Sayers, few boxing experts gave Heenan much of a chance against the British champion.

In the long lead-up to the fight, the papers spiced their coverage with sex. During the Cincinnati stop on Heenan’s nationwide tour, the boxer had met a slim, beautiful stage actress with short dark curls named Adah Isaacs Menken. She followed him to New York, and the two were married in April 1859. As the championship fight neared, it was reported that Heenan’s actress wife had not secured a legal divorce from her first husband. (Her ex told the newspapers that the actress was an “incubus and disgrace” whose “superlative impudence and brazenness … renders her unworthy of my further charitable silence.”) Menken fought back against the charges in language that suggested they were true—”I am proud and happy to be known as the wife of the bravest man in the world!”—and used her notoriety to further stoke her fame. Changing her stage billing to Mrs. John C. Heenan, she appeared in scores of productions prior to her husband’s big match. In Providence, she starred in a farce about her husband called Heenan Has Come! In Richmond, Va., she appeared in Benicia Boy in England alongside a journeyman actor named John Wilkes Booth.

The fight itself was a slugfest that frightened and appalled some of the thousand or so well-heeled spectators who were delivered to the site in specially chartered trains. Most accounts agree on the events of the first 37 rounds, which lasted roughly two hours. Heenan repeatedly pummeled the arrogant Sayers, who would laugh each time the American knocked him to the ground. Heenan scored an extraordinary 16 knockdowns, delivering the kind of beating that would’ve quickly ended a modern boxing match. But Sayers proved startlingly resilient, battling on even after his right arm was badly injured in the sixth round. As the fight progressed, Heenan’s face became so badly disfigured that he was almost unrecognizable.

The police arrived by the 30th round. The angry crowd, particularly the American contingent that supported Heenan, would have none of it, and fists were thrown to stem the cops’ progress. The policemen, their uniforms torn and noses bleeding, inched closer to the ring, reaching its edge by the 37th round.

At this point, Heenan lunged toward Sayers, pinning him against the ropes. In the confusion of the moment, some spectators thought that the American was trying to choke his opponent. “That’s murder!” an Englishman allegedly shouted. Others would counter that the American was fighting within the rules, delivering the knockout blows that would end the fight. Either way, Sayers was in danger. Just as the police appeared ready to penetrate the ring, the Brit’s supporters lowered or cut the ropes, causing both men to fall to the ground. Although the brawl would continue for another five chaos-filled rounds, the result had already been determined—the British referee declared a draw after the ropes dropped.

Each nation drew its own lessons from the instantly legendary battle. (OK, not so instantly—Californians wouldn’t learn the results, delivered by the Pony Express, for another month.) To Britons, Sayers was an exemplar of indomitable perseverance. Americans saw it differently. In his memoirs, the statesman Henry Cabot Lodge recalled his reaction as a young boy. “The manner in which the English crowd broke the ropes … filled me with an anger which I still think just,” Lodge wrote. “It was my first experience of what is called fair play in England, and I do not think that I ever wholly recovered from it.” In other words: We wuz robbed.

Heenan was feted as a champion when he came back to America, with celebratory cannon salutes fired in his honor on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. He toured the country for nine months, visiting scores of cities in the North and South and re-enacting the fight for his adoring public. He refused offers to run for Congress and to serve in the Confederate Army. On his way to St. Louis, he made a detour to meet with Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Mo.

By the time Heenan reached New Orleans in May 1861, Confederate batteries had fired on Fort Sumter, troops were on the march, and Menken had sued for divorce. Rather than fight in the war, Heenan went to England; in 1863 he lost his final fight there to Tom King, leaving him with a career record of 0-2-1. While we can only speculate about why the fighter chose to leave the country during the Civil War, the decision seems to have hurt his reputation stateside. One article written after Heenan left America tut-tutted that his “ruling passion is the love of money” rather than love of country.

After the war, Heenan returned to a New York life of guest appearances at sporting events and visits to the faro tables. With the former American hero fading from stardom, boxing wouldn’t enjoy substantial popularity again until the emergence of John L. Sullivan in the 1880s. Heenan’s former flame, though, ascended to a risqué pre-eminence that has inspired several biographers. Menken gained legendary status by appearing in a play called Mazeppa, an adaptation of a Lord Byron poem. In the final scene, which lasted just a few seconds, Menken (playing Mazeppa) was strapped to the back of a horse while clad in curve-revealing tights, a semi-nude instant that caught the attention of Mark Twain, among others. The subtitle of the most-recent examination of her life is “Adah Isaacs Menken and the Birth of American Celebrity.”

When Heenan died in 1873, the newspapers had all seemingly forgotten the boxer’s recent prominence in American life. The New York Clipper, a sports and entertainment weekly, spent most of its obituary speaking of “the splendid eloquence of his physique” and praising his performance against Sayers. But buried in the archives of American history is the service Heenan performed in offering the country a respite before the war. Witness the words of a bawdy poem written in Heenan’s voice and printed in Vanity Fair before the big fight:

I’ll wind our colors round my loins—

The blue and crimson bars,

And if Tom does not feel the stripes,

I’ll make him see the stars!

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